Elizabeth I of England gained iconic status as the Virgin Queen. By refusing to bow to convention and take a husband who might rule for her, she carved out a role as one of the most formidable monarchs that England had ever seen. While this may have been a conscious political decision on Elizabeth’s part, she had been profoundly influenced by the experiences of her female relations and rivals.Principal among these was her mother, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was less then three years old when Anne was executed, but she gradually learned the truth of how her father’s love for Anne had swiftly turned to hatred when she had failed to give him a son and he had had her put to death on suspicion of adultery.
The stepmothers who took Anne’s place did little to convince Elizabeth that marriage was a good idea. Jane Seymour died in childbirth a year after marrying Henry; Anne of Cleves was summarily rejected by a king driven more by sexual desire than political gain; and Katherine Parr eventually married for love, only to be betrayed by a husband intent upon seducing the young Elizabeth.
But the stepmother whose fate had perhaps the greatest influence on her was Catherine Howard. Like Anne Boleyn, she was accused of adultery (although perhaps with greater justification) and put to death at the Tower. Elizabeth was eight years old at the time, and was said to have confided to her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, that she would never marry.
Elizabeth’s experiences in adulthood set the seal on this determination. She witnessed first-hand the humiliation of her half-sister, Mary, who suffered two phantom pregnancies and was subsequently abandoned by her adored husband, Philip II. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, provided a salutary lesson in the dangers of being ruled by heart. She made a hasty and disastrous marriage to the feckless Henry, Lord Darnley, and soon after lost her crown when she married the man suspected of Darnley’s murder.
Similar fates would await Elizabeth’s other rivals, notably Katherine and Mary Grey (the sisters of Lady Jane), and Arabella Stuart, who each forfeited their claim to the throne by marrying in secret. With female role models such as these, it is little wonder that Elizabeth resolved to remain a virgin.